Monday, October 3, 2011

Uncertainty as a Common Thread in 20th Century Philosophy, Science & Music: A Short Original Essay by Payman Akhlaghi (2011)

Uncertainty as a Common Thread in 20th Century Philosophy, Science & Music
A Short Original Essay by Payman Akhlaghi [Revision 2]

© 2011, Payman Akhlaghi. The following is a slightly modified version of a Foto-Note, first Published on October 1st, 2011, at Facebook.com/PAComposer under 
Uncertainty as a Common Thread in 20th Century Philosophy, Science & Music. . The following is copyrighted material at the time and by the virtue of its original creation. Proper citation is required. Thank you. [*This post was updated on 12.28.2014 to mend the links and this notice.]

A thread on John Cage's chance composition, "Indeterminacy, Part 1", initiated by Thomas Monteforte and Andy Green, led me to summarize some of my longstanding thoughts on the subject of probability in 20th century music, philosophy, and the little I know about physics.

By now for decades, John Cage has continued to provoke, inform, and fascinate me by way of his compositions, poems, interviews, and the very air of his being. That could be true for his striking "music of silence", i.e  "4'33"", a string quartet in the tonal style, a piece for percussion group which I heard live, his "sketching" over Dvorak's 9th Symphony, a movement from his "Lectures", his composition for an ensemble of radios, or his book of highly structured poetry, "Composition in Retrospect".

Cage reacts to "total serialism", or the highly controlled processes of Modernist composition in the 20th century, by opting for the opposite, and he succeeds. His oeuvre, standing next to that of a Schoenberg or a Boulez, tells us something, that chaos and complexity are more similar to each other than we think. Both approach a reflection of life in its full complexity, either as a "chance system, or as a intricate system of orderly relations. Once a professor of music played back a piece by Cage, which prompted a sophisticated pianist to observe in humor, "it sounds like Schoenberg!" And as the professor noted, that was indeed the point. Piece after piece, Cage offers question after question, making us think about the very nature of music.

Xenakis said in an interview (UNESCO Courier, April 1986; cf. my earlier post.) that if Schoenberg had been familiar with modern math, he would have written music using chance (aleatory) and stochastic processes, instead of his 12-tone system (dodecaphony). I have my thoughts on this; but one thing for certain: the first element of aleatory ever introduced to Modern classical music, as a goal not an as an accident, was Sprechstimme, introduced by Schoenberg, first observed in "Pierrot Lunaire" (1912), specifically for its very precisely ambiguous notation (sic!). But that could wait for another post.

I read a portion of Heisenberg's auto-biography (tr. to Persian) as a teen, and I was taken by his account of how one afternoon he and his friends gathered to play a chamber piece by, I think, Beethoven. So casually, music was a natural part of their lives. (His account of his first encounter with Bohr was equally fascinating, as is the "educated guess" of Michael Frayn in "Copenhagen", about their secretive second meeting years later.) And as we all know, Einstein too played violin. I wonder how much the firsthand experience of these great scientists with music drove Heisenberg to the "uncertainty principle", or Einstein to the "relativity theory"? After all, uncertainty was always a part of interpretation of music: take a little Invention by Bach, and you know "for sure" that the tempo could be anywhere between 80 to 140 beats per minute, depending on the performer.

The same could be seen in Wittgenstein's later philosophy of language, which is based on an understanding of the contingent elements intrinsic to language and its dynamic daily application. Generally speaking, the meaning of words continues to be modified by each usage, even though the speakers might be using them according to the rules. A degree of uncertainty is always present in any application of language. And more generally, the same could be said of the Existentialist's "projection of the ego" into the unknown, as expressed by Sartre.

In a way, 20th century was the age of uncertainty. We might ponder how much the rapidly changing world contributed to an unprecedented understanding of uncertainty as an inherent aspect of the universe? We could ask, to what extent the changing world around the thinking human was reflected in the products of his or her mind, and vice versa, to what extent his existential angst, exacerbated not the least by two World Wars, imposed his uncertainties on the abstract and concrete universe? Regardless of the answer, I perceive this appreciation of uncertainty as a reality of human life and universe one of the greatest achievements of humanity, the culmination of an ages-long quest for freedom of the spirit in its most fundamental sense.

October 1st, 2011, Los Angeles
© 2011, Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved for the author.

(*) First Published October 1st, 2011, at Facebook.com/PAComposer, under Uncertainty as a Common Thread in 20th Century Philosophy, Science & Music.
 The above contained copyrighted material at the time and by the virtue of its original creation. Proper citation is required. Thank you. [*This post was updated on 12.28.2014 to mend the links and this notice.]

[*This post was updated on 12.28.2014 to mend the links and this notice.]
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(*) Payman Akhlaghi is a Los Angeles-based composer, pianist, and piano teacher, covering the greater Los Angeles area. His repertoire includes classical, as well as Persian music. Payman holds an MA and a BA degree in Composition from UCLA. He's currently working on his dissertation toward degree of PhD in Composition. You may contact him by calling (310) 208-2927 [USA].

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